The idea that sin defiles the sinner (and sometimes, those with whom he or she interacts) is a fundamental tenet of hamartiology (the study of sin). Indeed, this is the root reason for the imagery and theology of defilement and uncleanness in the OT Law, and that the Law commanded and provided a means to cleansing speaks to the innate need for just that in our relationship to God, other people, and His world.
Original sin places the soul in a position where the whole mind, heart, and will are in rebellion against God’s authority and thus have the propensity to sin in action, word, thought, and attitude. Indwelling sin (in the believer) tempts a person internally, appealing to their unique personality, weaknesses, history, and so forth. Actual sin—the actual acts of sin we commit—is what incurs both guilt and the active wrath of God. (Thanks to Rosaria Butterfield for the initial ideas.) Often, we do not sense our own filthiness until we commit some sin, and then only if it is especially egregious or wicked. But the whole ball of wax is what makes us defiled; actual sin only enhances and explicates it.
Those whom God intends to draw to salvation will often feel the weight of their sin and sense and overpowering need for cleansing. True Christians know this is only found in the person and work of the Lord Jesus. In Mark 1:40-45, our Lord gives us a wonderful picture of how He cleanses sinners, using the beautiful OT images and concepts He gave to Moses long ago.
A. The Leper’s Cry (v. 40)
Recall that leprosy was sternly condemned in the OT as a prime example of the defilement of sin (Lev. 13). To protect His covenant people from its destructive ravaging, as well as to teach them an object lesson about sin, God gave clear instructions on how a person with leprosy was to behave. The heart of this counsel was that the leprous person was to be confined to a designated area where he or she could only interact with other lepers. This prevented the disease from spreading and also provided a powerful visual of how sin alienated people (from a holy God and from each other) and made them spiritually filthy.
For a leper to approach Jesus, then, was something utterly out of the ordinary. He wasn’t supposed to get near anyone for fear of infecting them. And to be infected was a death sentence physically (there was no cure for leprosy) as well as socially. This man is risking everything to come near Jesus. Where had he heard of our Lord’s power to heal? We do not know. What we do know is this man had a pure, earnest, firm confidence in Jesus’ sovereign power: He simply says, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” He beseeches Jesus—the Greek carries the idea of urging strongly, appealing to, even begging. And note he does not question Jesus’ ability or right, but only His willingness. However, he knows that if Jesus is willing, it will be done. What simple trust in the Lord’s authority!
Finally, note the specific request: He does not ask to be healed, only to be made clean. This does not mean physical healing was unimportant to him, much less that he thought he could be made clean without being healed (that was impossible). But it demonstrates rather that he had the right priority: Even though he had to be physically healed to be made clean, he wasn’t emphasizing the healing. He wanted the cleanness—the welcome to God’s people and community and temple and security once more—that the healing made possible. Is this our heart? Do we want the reconciliation with a holy God most, even as we also desire His good gifts and restoration on every level? What is our priority? The leper interrogates our hearts as he reveals his own.
B. The Savior’s Compassion (v. 41)
I would have loved to see Jesus’ face as He watched this broken man approach and interact with Him. I believe His eyes crinkled with delight and His face broke into a pleased, proud, if reserved, smile as His omniscient mind searched the man’s soul and found it humble and turned towards Him. We do know our Lord was a man of great feeling and emotional depth; as He hears the man’s plea, He is “moved with compassion.” This Greek term means lit. “to feel in the bowels”—when you emotionally felt compassion, tenderness, yearning, and a desire to love and help, you physically felt it in your belly. Our Lord feels great pity and pain and love for this man’s suffering even as He is doubtless pleased with and rejoicing in his humble faith.
He does something next that is instructive: He touches the man. Surely this would have been a scandal to those who saw it. Realize this man has not been touched by another human, expect possibly by other lepers, in many years. And realize further that our Lord did not need to touch him to heal—He simply wanted to affirm His love, compassion, and tenderness for the man. Perhaps the man was afraid Jesus would reject him like other had. Perhaps he was cowering, unable to look Him in the face. So Jesus takes hold of him—grasps him firmly in His hands, and says with great tenderness, “I am willing. Be cleansed.”
“Willing” is present tense. Always willing. Forever willing. Right now, as you read this, willing! Do you realize Jesus longs to cleanse us from our defilement? He does not want sinners to be cut off from Him, to not know His smile and blessing and the fullness of restoration that comes from being turned towards the holy God. If only we will come, He will cleanse!
Immediately the man’s disease is gone. It does not happen in stages. He does not need to go to a clinic for a while to rest and have the physical ravages of the disease dealt with. He is instantly, completely, perfectly restored and healed. Here, Jesus is identifying with the uncleanness of sin and its effects, taking it into and upon Himself, absorbing it so someone else—a sinner who does not deserve physical or spiritual healing—can go free. In light of what our Lord will do on the cross, and the OT picture of leprosy as demonstrating sin’s defilement, it is not hard to see shadows of Calvary here.
C. A Stern Warning (vv. 42-44)
As He has done before, our Lord tells the man with great sternness not to tell anyone what has happened to him, at least until he is pronounced clean by the priests (he would, after all, have to tell them). Why? We know why: Because every time Jesus has healed someone thus far—as a demonstration of His messianic authority and the kingdom;s presence in Him, and showing what the world is to be under His decicive rule—people have minsundertsood it as some free ticket to perfect health. They have mkisied the point entirely and have ,mobbed Him, tamking the focus of His mission: to proclaim divine truth in anticipation of His death and resurrection and reign. Indeed, that is why He is traveling through Capernaum: He is preaching! He is declaring who He is and what God will do through Him. He is proclaiming the arrival of God’;s psomised kingdom in His person and pleading with people to repent and be saved. His death for sinners and His kingly rule—not the healings and miralces that accredit and picture its future fullness—are thr focus. And our Lord wants to keep it that way.
He tells the man to go to the priests at the Jerusalem temple and present himself for the cleansing ceremony. When a man or woman was somehow healed of leprosy, God gave a long list of things to do the verify it and readmit the person into the community (Lev. 14:2-32). This is the pathway to the cleansing for which the man longs. Likely, this is also an attempt to force the Jewish leadership to interact with His power and authority. If the man is going to tell anyone about Jesus, let it be the men who symbolize and incarnate the hardened hearts against God and His Messiah!
D. The Response of the Leper (v. 45)
We cannot be too angry at the (now former) leper. While his blathering was disobedience, rooted in a (likely sincere) idea that he simply knew better than the Lord, one can understand his excitement and joy. He has been kept a functional prisoner for years, cut off from the nation and people and temple he loved. We can assume he had maintained some kind of relationship with God during his “exile,” otherwise cleansing would not have been so important to him (for the unclean were also cut off from all synagogue and temple functions as well). So he goes and tells everyone who will listen who Jesus is and what He has done for him. As Jesus knew, this made everyone in the region mob Him, to the point that He could not enter a city without being flooded. Doubtless our Lord loved these people and healed many of them, but I am sure He was grieved in His heart that once again the main focus of His earthly ministry—the reason He, eternal God, became manifest in the flesh as a man forever—was being obscured and sidelined. He was forced to confine Himself to deserted, wilderness places, communing with His Father, until the hysteria died down.
Note once again the Lord’s exchange: He has absorbed the man’s sickness and uncleanness without Himself becoming sick and unclean (a divine feat if there ever was one, and another picture of what He, and only He, can do with our sin), but now, the leper can rejoin society and be welcomed, while Jesus is inadvertently forced into a kind of exile. The leper started in the wilderness and is restored; Jesus started in the city and is banished.
Just as the leper needed cleansing, so we need cleansing from what leprosy pictures: the defilement and guilt of our sin. Just as he could not heal himself, so we—spiritually dead sinners—cannot. That can only happen if our sin itself is dealt with in its penalty (the cross), guilt (Christ’s imputed righteousness) and power (progressive sanctification). By His grace, our Lord takes our sin and defilement and restores us to the smile of a holy God and all the blessing it affords. Most notably, this encounter ought to not merely be intellectual but experiential. Have you had an experience of the cleansing love of the Lord Jesus? May He manifest Himself to you as the mighty Savior, whose blood alone makes us clean—and makes us know it!